R015 The Island of Dr. Moreau

(1996, Horror/SciFi, color)


Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy

Is it too early to hit Val with a coal shovel?

Rating: *1/2

In a nutshell:

A mad scientist’s creations inevitably turn on him.


A potentially fatal speedball of acting.Official U.N. Peace Guy Edward Douglas (David Thewlis) has survived a plane crash into the middle of the ocean. When our story begins, he’s trapped on a life raft with two nameless military escort-type guys as they engage in a life-and-death struggle over the last canteen of water. (How trained peacekeepers got desperate to the point of violence before becoming too dehydrated to move is never explained.) Knives are pulled; paddles are wielded; sharks are attracted to the resulting corpses; and sole survivor Edward is left to drift on alone.

He wakes up aboard an Indonesian vessel in the care of trained veterinarian Montgomery (Val Kilmer) who takes Edward along with him to the eponymous Island of Dr. Moreau. A bit of rabbit-killing exposition reveals that Moreau (Marlon Brando) came to the island to continue his animal research away from activist interference. A bit of belly dancing exposition (courtesy of the lovely Aissa, played by Fairuza Balk) reveals that the unseen “island natives” have secrets of their own. Montgomery shows Edward to his room, and then locks him in.

Of course Edward escapes, and, also of course, he stumbles onto the “shocking truth” of Dr. Moreau’s experiments. Basically, the mad doctor has genetically and surgically altered animals to look and behave like people. Much of the film’s middle portion alternates between scenes spent with Moreau himself—a huge, pale man whose remote control can cause all his beast subjects to fall to the ground in pain—and scenes spent with the beast people—the goat-ish Sayer of the Law (Ron Perlman), the feline Aissa, and so on.

Another feline mutant breaks the island’s strict vegetarian law by killing one of Montgomery’s rabbits and is executed for his lapse. The unfortunate mutant’s friend Hyena discovers a microchip planted on the bones of the corpse; he discovers that by removing it, he can become immune to Moreau’s pain-inducing remote. He leads a band of revolutionary mutants who break into Moreau’s house to kill and devour their master.

How the mighty have fallen.This leads to a breakdown in order among the other beast people, as they all depended on a constant supply of Moreau’s experimental pharmaceuticals to keep them from reverting to their animal natures. The already drug-addled Montgomery slides even further into his narcotic haze; he decides to dress up as a fat, pale, effeminate weirdo, thus imitating Moreau with frightening accuracy. He heads into beast town to throw a rockin’ man-animal rave, which mercifully ends when Hyena et al. arrive to gun him down.

Meanwhile, Edward has been searching among Moreau’s notes to find a way to keep Aissa from turning back into a cat-girl. He discovers that the only way to make her permanently human is to kill himself and strip his body for parts—in fact, he was rescued and brought to the island for that very purpose. Hyena finds them, murders Aissa, and hauls Edward forward for execution. Edward tells him that since they ate the flesh of their god (Moreau) that he and all of his fellow revolutionaries are now gods as well. Hyena becomes jealous of the others, prompting a fight that kills them all.

Later, Edward builds a raft and leaves the island over a heavy-handed montage of Third World violence.


How the fallen have fallen further.So Moreau’s ultimate goal is to turn animals into people? I don’t really see that as helpful or necessary, especially when you consider that a) animals in their natural states are essential to the planet’s ecosystem and b) real humans are easily manufactured, and thus are not in short supply. (I could hit at least a dozen with a goldfish cracker from where I’m sitting.) On the other hand, questioning the utility of a mad scientist’s experiment is a little like asking a four-year-old why she put beans up her nose. When deciding on a course of action, common sense was simply not one of the criteria.

Nor does common sense appear to have been a factor in the making of the film. Some rather heavy-handed montages at the beginning and end appear to make a statement against war. The gruesome movie in the middle, however, significantly undercuts that message, like those Berkeley peace protesters who feel so strongly about pacifism that they inevitably attack the cops sent to watch them. The message implied by Sayer of the Law near the end is contradictory as well. Animals are better off as animals, he says—killing and eating one another as necessary, I guess. But we just spent a good portion of the earlier film implying that people can be more like animals than animals can be like people, which further implies...what? That we should just give in and wallow in internecine violence?

And then, as if the film’s metaphorical waters needed to be muddied further, we have the performances. Much has been made of Brando’s weight, indifference, and inability to remember lines. (According to some tales, his prompter fed him lines through an earpiece, which occasionally picked up a nearby police band. So oblivious was he that he’d catch his costars off-guard by parroting the dispatcher instead of reciting dialogue.) Nevertheless, he has a powerful screen presence that could have lent his scenes considerable weight if only he’d bothered to involve himself in them. I did not know it was possible to be “intensely bemused” or “intensely apathetic” but apparently Brando can manage it just by being Brando. The sad result is that his bemusement and/or apathy that tends to drown out whatever’s happening around him. I’d say that the above applies to Kilmer as well, except that Kilmer is at least attempting a character of some sort. The fact he manages to give such intensity to a man who spends most of his time in a pharmaceutical stupor speaks well of his acting ability. The fact that he draws so much attention to it in a movie that’s not about his character’s drug addiction speaks ill of his commitment to the rest of the film.

Put all of the above together, and you have a disjointed, pseudo-political, hallucinatory film that will make you feel like you’ve been shouted at by a paranoid schizophrenic for ninety-nine consecutive minutes.

Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy team up yet again to provide the commentary track. When names of Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer appear simultaneously on screen, Mike calls them, “A potentially fatal speedball of acting.” Later, as Montgomery feeds Edward drugs aboard the Indonesian ship, Mike says, “I’m going to give you something to help you convulse.” Later, when they reach Moreau’s tent-and-Quonset-hut stronghold, Kevin notes, “This is an odd remake of M*A*S*H.” The commentary is funny, but not funny enough to overcome this nightmarish turd. It’s like having your favorite comedians along to crack jokes with you while visiting a ward for the criminally insane.